Power of Soft Technology

Those who had access to technology always had an edge over the others who couldn’t have access to, or refused to embrace it. People who had guns won over the people who had swords; farmers who knew rain water harvesting methods make it to market over those who don’t have this knowledge; people who had IT to manage their inventory could scale and deliver to the world – even if it is just sugar water.

Technology, over generations have not only proven to be a key differentiator but have also taken humanity into newer possibilities. Who knew man would reach moon, Mars or discover galaxies beyond the known universe.

Electricity, telephony, clocks, assembly line, money, metallurgy and agriculture are handful of technologies that have impacted our world in the sort of deeply transformative way in a day-to-day world as we know it.

However, Written Language and money are sort of ‘Soft Technologies’, capable of being embodied in a variety of specific physical forms. One can write on sand with fingers, on stone or author a book. One can embody money (value) in paper currency, coins, credit cards.

Possessing these soft technologies are powerful beyond imagination and must be exercised with responsibility.

Software has the same relationship to any specific sort of computing hardware! As a simple example, a 14-year-old teenager today can learn programming, contribute significantly to open-source projects, and become a talented professional-grade programmer before age 18.

Stock markets of the world can be embodied into network of buyers and sellers and can replicate the behavior of physical market. Youtube has changed the way we watch videos and Facebook has changed the way we meet friends. Software can change the way farmers sow/harvest, children in govt. school get access to world class infrastructure and education, unskilled labor acquire skills based on nation’s GDP growth. One result of this increased potential was that technologists began to grope towards a collective vision commonly called the Internet of Things.

Money and written language both transformed the world in similarly profound ways. Software, however, is more flexible and powerful than either.

Writing is very flexible: we can write with a finger on sand or with an electron beam on a pinhead. Money is even more flexible: anything from cigarettes in a prison and salt in the ancient world to modern fiat currencies can work. But software can increasingly go wherever writing and money can go, and beyond. Software can make writing into Wikipedia and can make money disconnect from its hardware (mobile wallets & IMPS)!

The opportunities presented by software are expanding, and the risks of being caught on the wrong side of the transformation are increasing. Those who have correctly calibrated the impact of software are winning.

And the winners are not winning by small margins or temporarily either. And this appears to be true at all levels from individuals to businesses to nations.

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Product Development and Design Thinking

Working like a designer means that new things are created and then rejected. Then something else is created and rejected. This carries on until a solution is found that solves everybody’s problem, almost everybody’s.

There are products that have served plug gaps in the market and then there are those that have made their own place. Product ideas can be instinctive or intuitive. However, creation of it, is a process which can either be definitive or iterative.

No one can create a product like an iPhone on one’s own. The Salesforce.com isn’t an idea of Benioff alone. The “things” are created, rejected and prototypes are built, improved & rebuilt. iPhone, Salesforce.com aren’t yet products marked “done”. The iterative process has a beginning but no pre-determined end (apart from the agreed deadlines). The process of iteration is so powerful, that a brilliant and revolutionary  product “iPhone” was dropped for “iPhone 3G”. And with iPhone 6S, all great phones of their times – are considered dead. The iterative process has a beginner, but who knows who will conclude.

Lot has been talked about “Design Thinking”, read this and this (a slideshare ppt at the end). It seems “Design Thinking” requires an organization culture and a spirit that translate into greatest of products. [Or is it the other way round, while the product is in the process of making – such culture & spirit organically emerge that protects the evolution of the product?] Here is an internal meeting of Apple around the launch of “Think Different” campaign, a glimpse of that spirit & culture.

(In the first half he talks about Product, Marketing & Distribution & how he wants to re-build all three)

I am sure that video digressed us from the topic! 🙂

Beginning and Improving

The one who conceptualizes the product may not be able to even imagine what creators, the observers & the users might turn it into. There are tons of product ideas, far more important is the process of finding the right one – and the process of giving life to the chosen one.

An important component of a successful innovation process is the visualization of ideas. The prototypes, I believe, must be as real and accurate as possible. The prototype must look and feel just like a finished product. Using a prototype calls for observations, constructive criticism & internal sales begin! If however, a prototype is at concept level & too much is left to imagination, it will not make the cut – more importantly it may become difficult to see the enormous potential it may possess had it been a living prototype.

Who Owns A Product?

The conceptualist? The Creator? The User? Or is it an irrelevant question? Who owns Wikipedia?

I believe, the ownership changes with evolution of the product. And once product reaches adolescence, whose characteristics does product possess the most – should be the owner!

The ownership should move from the ideator to creators once creators understand the product better than the original owner. And owner has to take that call of transfer of ownership, and must ensure that creators can take better care! The creators then must assist the product grow in the hands of users before the product is deemed fit for crowd-ownership. Once it is ascertained that the product has reached a phase where the value it provides to the crowed will be missed if not protected by the crowd – the product can then nurture the crowd. 🙂

The Economics of Uber of X

If you could sms a wish; and someone whom you texted were a magician and made it possible! Chen designed an all-white landing page that makes anything on earth, possible. No wonder they call it Magic.

In two days of the launch, Magic team realized 18000 wishes – and then there was no time to re-think or improve the product!

It seems the desire for convenience knows no bounds. 

Uber of X

By this point, “it’s the Uber of X” is a phrase you’ve probably heard more than ‘Uber’.  Half of new startups either project themselves as Uber of something, or have been dubbed so by others. And it’s great news as Uber is valued $18 billion, not bad for a company that was founded in 2009. So here is a business model, that start-ups must leverage to re-define industries or create new ones.

Today, Uber looks like a mindless formula. There is an Uber of food, Uber of flowers, Uber of laundry, Uber of home services, Uber of Garages and Uber of X.

The business of building networks

I visited Tadoba National Tiger Reserve last year. In search of the Wagdoh Tiger (superstar of the reserve) we covered a stretch of 300 Kms in 4 days. We finally spotted the dominant big cat prowling the territory on the 4th day. The search was worth it; what amazed me more – is how our safari guide (who was also a resident of the forest) strategically discovered the tiger by carefully listening to the sounds coming from all directions in the dense forest. He later explained how birds, monkeys and other animals in the forest make a specific kind of noise when they sight a tiger – alarming all other animals of the tiger’s whereabouts. It took him 20+ years to learn what different kinds of sounds mean at distinct times of the day (& how are they different from other sounds in the jungle).

Animals in the forests have learnt to compete & collaborate; figured out a mechanism to survive and cleverly (constantly) spy the tiger to safeguard themselves. Each movement the tiger makes, is well announced. A well-understood-by-all sound alarms the jungle at the right time. Most sophisticated form of inter-connectedness and a brilliant network. And what better could you expect, tourist guides have learned to live on the network too.

In the same network, later I realized there are many forms of small, medium and large networks to support various forms of life. Some networks are built among animal-groups for their survival, some are focused towards young-ones of all species and some connections give information about change of seasons.

How different is this from Internet? I couldn’t find an answer. Or the internet(work) is no different! A network of ‘something’ can create and hold value for all in the network (and beyond). Essentially, a simple Uber app on your smart phone connects you to one such valuable network (the network of on-demand cabs) – and if the network is sufficiently efficient, it can save you from the tiger! If you know what I mean.

In The Name Of Uber

There is a difference between business of building inter-networks and business of forming connections. While both seem to be clones of Uber, there is much difference. I tried to use my paint brush skills to explain this.

Uber of X -1

The above figure illustrates how two distinct networks (in many cases more than two) learn to leverage upon the value provided by the other. While two different colors show two different entities, the network has essentially become one! It is not evident that there ‘is‘ a 3rd party involved in facilitating the interconnections, but that’s the glue!

Moreover such blended networks are highly automated, with little or no manual intervention the new colored network learns to work on its own.

Such platforms need to built, once. 

Uber of X -2

The second figure shows two networks sets of parties (service providers and seekers) on either side of a (3rd party tech) platform that aims to control the communication and prevents (intentionally or unintentionally) any direct connections. While it may seem like a network of networks from the outset, however in actual, it is the platform that is partially automated, highly governed and only as efficient as number of manual touch points. Most importantly, when either side of the platform grow in strength, the platform fails to cope-up and becomes a bottleneck.

Such platforms, once built, must be maintained well.

Both models have their own merits and demerits. The former, no prizes for guessing, is sustainable at scale.

What Went Wrong with HomeJoy?

One such Uber of X is shutting down this month, HomeJoy. We wouldn’t have paid any attention to it if it were a usual start-up failing. It is the first failure of Uber of X – and I am sure many would like to analyze ‘why’ and ‘how’ of it!

As I see HomeJoy, its the Clone 2 that defines them better. It is natural that a network would organically grow stronger when there are optimal rewards for everybody in the network. In Clone 2, the aggregation platform wants to suck most of the rewards, as it tries to control the communication. Not to forget, there’s much money gone in building such a platform + there is huge maintenance cost.

In case of Uber of ‘successful Xs’, there are investors that sit outside the system and fund (lots and lots of money) in finding the cohesiveness on which small and large networks thrive. While money & patience is necessary, it cannot be a mindless replication of connection business (read brokerage). The inter & intra network needs to learn to cooperate, compromise, understand the importance of connected-ness, most importantly cohesiveness should be built in and not forced & governed.

In case of Homejoy, it brought out another great survival essential – a network must not violate laws of existing large networks. With this failure, venture capitalists will now look for a market fit or scrutinizing metrics, that are usually missing in so-called “Uber-for-X” startups; in this case it was employee / associate contracts.

Can there be networks around anything?

Or are all Uber of X possible?

I also see it as – not all problems are equally painful.  Most people don’t consider the logistics around getting a massage or attending a yoga class to be the same level of pain and frustration as home renovation or trying to sell their old car. Immediacy, Reliability and Necessity are also some factors that goes into designing a network. Some networks add value and some only seem to.

Its only a beginning. We have just started to experience how small & large internal networks of online (Amazon) and hybrid (Uber) are learning to breathe. It will be exciting to see – if there is a place for Uber-for-everything? Or is Magic just that?